Sometimes you need money and the only place to find extra or emergency funds is in your IRA or other retirement accounts. Before we talk about how to access these funds, keep this in mind: You should not take money from those accounts unless you are experiencing a genuine emergency and you have no other acceptable way to raise cash (a very high interest payday loan would be worse, for example).

All the same, most Americans are dangerously low on retirement savings. Any distribution (the fancy term for withdrawing money) could have a catastrophic impact on your ability to retire comfortably.

And that’s not all. You will generally owe income tax on on any money you withdraw from your Traditional IRA.  What’s more, in most cases, you have to pay a 10 percent penalty on that money in addition to that.  Here are some ways to avoid the penalty.

Make Sure You’re Over 59½

Retirement funds should be used for retirement. If you’re older than 59½ years of age, you can withdraw retirement funds without paying the IRS penalty. (Keep in mind that you still have to pay taxes on any withdrawals.)

Use Your IRA for Medical Expenses

Distributions you spend for unreimbursed medical expenses might mean you don’t pay the 10 percent penalty. You have to meet specific criteria including how much of your income the expenses represent.

If your illness results in permanent disability, you can use IRA funds penalty free. Also, if you’re temporarily unemployed and need to keep your health insurance active, you’ll avoid the penalty.

Keep in mind that the IRS may do some investigating before it allows you to use your IRA for medical expenses. If it finds that you had other assets you could have used to pay the bills, it may say that you owe the penalty.

Pay for College (Not Just Yours)

If you’re paying “qualified education expenses” for yourself, your spouse, child or grandchild, you can withdraw Traditional IRA funds without paying a penalty. The student must be enrolled more than half time at an eligible institution.

Buy Your First Home

A first home is a huge financial outlay, especially for younger people with limited funds. Oddly enough, you might be considered a first-time home buyer even if it isn’t your first home. If you haven’t owned a home in the past two years, you qualify.

You can withdraw up to $10,000 of your earnings to purchase a home without penalty. If your spouse also has an IRA, your family could withdraw another $10,000.

Tap Funds During Military Service

Military reserve members may withdraw earnings from their Traditional IRA if they were called to active duty after September 11, 2001, for more than 179 days. The distribution must take place during the active-duty period. The four main branches of the military, plus the Coast Guard, are eligible.

A Final Caution

Withdrawing money from a retirement account can potentially rob you of all the gains you made from keeping those funds invested. Don’t forget that you have to pay taxes on your withdrawals, and there’s that 10 percent penalty if you’re not old enough. You shouldn’t take money from retirement accounts unless there is no other option and the expense is a definite need. Anything else should wait until later in life.

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